Barkley Hendricks: Philadelphia’s Native Son Leads Portraiture Movement
By Shantay Robinson
Barry Schwabsky of The Nation wrote, “Once upon a time it seemed obvious that the future of painting lay in abstraction and that representation was becoming a thing of the past. Today it’s abstraction that has been eclipsed. And yet it would be misleading to say that representation, in the sense that was developed in the Renaissance and remained the standard for European painting until Modernism, has made a comeback.” Portraiture has reemerged as a dominant art form in the early 21st century. Although photography eclipsed portraiture in the 19th century, artists today are interested in representation despite and perhaps due to the popularity of photography.
A generation of artists who were not present during the Renaissance have resurrected the portrait. Led by a fearless Barkley Hendricks, black artists of the early 21st century are making up for lost time. Many black portrait artists, while being enthralled by museum visits in their youth, couldn’t help but notice the lack of black subjects at the museums. Because of lack of representation, there has been a shift in practice from conceptual art and abstraction to portraiture among the artistic elite. Artists like Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sherald and more have taken to inserting the black body into the most prestigious of Western art institutions. Newer artists to the national stage like Alfred Conteh, Gerald Lovell, and Delita Martin are also taking up Hendricks’ lead.
While the insertion of the black figure into Western culture has happened within the last few years, the movement’s forefather started more than 40 years ago. When Barkley Hendricks toured Europe in the 1960s, he fell in love with old masters, van Dyck and Velazquez, but he didn’t see black subjects in the museums he toured. He wanted to correct that. He emerged as an artist at a time when modern art was king and many deemed portraiture dead. Hendricks is quoted as saying to the Brooklyn Rail in 2016, “I didn’t give a fuck what was going on. There’s nothing new out there…I didn’t care what was being done by other artists or what was happening around me. I was dealing with what I wanted to do.” His attitude made its way onto the canvas, as he painted black subjects who also looked like they didn’t give a fuck about what was going. During a time when civil rights for black people was just becoming law, black people had a right to be skeptical. And it showed.
Barkley Hendricks had been influential among black people, and especially black artists throughout his career. But it wasn’t until the 1984 “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” exhibition at the Whitney Museum curated by Thelma Golden that white audiences gained exposure to Hendricks. And it wasn’t until 2008 with the retrospective, “Barkley Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and the Studio Museum in Harlem that he gained acclaim by the Western art community. Hendricks’ star may have been delayed because of his unapologetic blackness, but he painted for black people. At the time Hendricks painted his portraits, the dogma amongst black people was that “black is beautiful.” When you look at Hendricks’ paintings there is no doubt that he believed that too. Not only was black beautiful, as evidence by Hendricks himself, black was gifted and talented. Hendricks’ portraits of cool, well-dressed black folks are credible as masterworks because the technique he employed is exceptional. His technique is almost photorealist, but still allows the viewer to see the artist’s hand. Not only does technique prove Hendricks’ mastery, his command for color proves an understanding of artistry.
Although he painted during a time of an intense political climate, he wasn’t painting portraits to be political. The confidence of his subjects might have some viewers perceive Hendricks’ portraits as political. But Hendricks maintains they weren’t. He stated in his Brooklyn Rail interview, “My paintings were about people that were part of my life…If they were political, it’s because they were a reflection of the culture we were drowning in.” He wasn’t formally associated with any political movements happening at the time. If anything, Hendricks was a part of the avant-garde that ushered in Blaxploitation, Disco and Philadelphia Soul, and the overconsumption of fashion. Scholar, Anna Arabindan-Kesson writes, “Hendricks was not involved in the separatist aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement, nor did he find a home within photorealism or abstraction tendencies of mainstream American art. Yet his braggadocio style, attention to detail, and intense color fields engage all these movements.”
Hendricks’ legacy is here with us today among the artists who follow his lead. He was accepted to Yale School of Art in 1970 and earned a bachelor’s and master’s in two years. He seemed to have set a precedent for the black Yale graduate, as those who have come after him, namely Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Jordan Casteel have all become successful by painting portraits. Because of his work with large scale portraiture, Wiley was chosen to create the presidential portraits. It could be because of his incorporation of historical European styles that Wiley is the success he is. Unlike Hendricks, Wiley used references to the Western art historical canon to ground his work and make a place for himself in it. Unlike Wiley, Thomas grounds herself squarely in a black aesthetic. By referencing the 1970s with fashion and color palette, she seems heavily influenced by Hendricks, but delivers his influence with her own sensual stylization. While a student at Yale, Casteel was encouraged to paint the genitals of the black male sitters whose portraits she painted. But she didn’t want to objectify them. Although possibly influenced by Hendricks, Casteel’s judgement differs from his as far as nudity goes. One of his more popular works is a self-portrait, “Brilliantly Endowed,” where he’s nude and wearing tube socks.
Hendricks died in 2017, but his legacy lives on through these artists and others who unapologetically assert themselves and their subjects in homogenized spaces to represent people who have been historically marginalized. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Hendricks attended Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts where he earned a certificate in 1967. He then taught arts and crafts for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. After receiving a master’s from Yale, he taught at Connecticut College for 38 years. His work is currently on view at Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Perelman Building on the first floor.
The Black Art In America™ Fine Art Show Philadelphia, September 14-16th at The Historic Belmont Mansion and Underground Railroad Museum is a hybrid fine art fair featuring an impressively curated array of artworks presented by our invited galleries, dealers and artists. Artwork will be offered in a range of media from paintings, photography, limited edition prints, mixed media as well as works on paper and sculpture. All artwork will be for sale. More
Featuring works by:
Barkley Hendricks, Norman Lewis, Sargent Johnson, Hughie Lee-Smith, Reginald Gammon, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Samella Lewis, Richard Yarde, Richard Mayhew, Charles Alston, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, Lavett Ballard, Jamaal Barber, Benny Andrews, Charles Ethan Porter, Masa Zodros, Kevin Cole, Woodrow Nash, Najee Dorsey, Gerald Lovell, Charly Palmer, Delita Martin, Jurell Cayetano, Bob Thompson, Nelson Stevens and Karen Powell many more
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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